Forbidden Divas: The Eyes Have It

David Melville Wingrove returns with another entirely guiltless pleasure:

FORBIDDEN DIVAS

The Eyes Have It

“It can get pretty dangerous to look your lover straight in the ass.”

  • An anonymous opera-goer, Mascara

It starts with a view of the sea. An expanse of pale blue water, flat and eerily serene. A white Art Nouveau monstrosity stands atop a cliff and looks out upon it. A lone figure comes out of the building, dressed in an all-white ensemble that suggests a sort of 80s designer space suit, complete with shoulder pads. She climbs into a compact but elegant silver-grey car and drives off. As night draws on, the lights of passing cars play across her face. We see in, a sudden close-up, that she is Charlotte Rampling. She looks quite rapturously beautiful, her hair cropped short so she resembles some exquisite androgynous boy. A white and geometrical earring, which looks weirdly akin to a Giacometti sculpture, dangles from one ear. Her mood is abstracted, so much so that she all but runs over a strange man crossing the road. She winds down her window and warns the stranger to be careful. He is a handsome man with a face of angular if slightly overripe beauty and an unruly mop of black and tousled hair. It is clear at once that he is not the careful type.

Our lady pays him no heed and drives on. Her car stops outside a solidly bourgeois apartment block in the heart of the city. She goes inside and comes face to face with a man who is looking, not at her, but at his own reflection (and hers) in a massive antique mirror framed in gilt. He is tall and distinguished and dressed immaculately in evening dress, adorned with a long and flowing white silk scarf. He is played by Michael Sarrazin, an actor best remembered as that most fetching of all Monsters in Frankenstein – The True Story (1973). We realise, with a quick double take, that this man and this woman look almost exactly identical. Their prominent cheekbones, sensual lips and cool blue eyes mean that each one is the other in an only very slightly modified form. Moving and speaking in the mirror, their images are at once their own and one another’s. “Your smile looks more and more like your mother’s,” the man says. “What does that mean?” the woman asks with cool provocation. “It means your mother had a beautiful smile.” We may or may not have guessed they are brother and sister. What we do know is they are two sides of a single self.

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A bizarre and hallucinatory psychosexual thriller, Mascara (1987) is a Belgian-French-Dutch coproduction and one of only two features directed by the poet and visual artist Patrick Conrad. It was dumped into cinemas by Cannon Films and sank almost without a trace. I can still remember sitting, enraptured, through a matinee in a cavernous West End movie house – empty apart from me and three other spectators, at least one of whom got up and walked out before the end. Mascara is that most curious and forlorn of objets d’art, a cult movie that has never found its cult. (To this day, it is unavailable on Blu-Ray or DVD.) To that vast majority of the human race who have not seen it, I can say only to imagine a film by Joe Eszterhas (Jagged Edge, Fatal Attraction, Basic Instinct) that has been that has been consummately rewritten and restaged by Jean Cocteau. Or better still, a Pedro Almodóvar movie that is played lyrically, poetically and with barely a hint of camp. It is the archetypal Charlotte Rampling movie, the celluloid epitome of Divine Decadence and sulphurous yet seductive doom.

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That unnaturally intimate brother and sister are on their way to an evening at the opera. The sister, Gaby, tells an acquaintance that her brother, Bert, imbibed his love of opera with their mother’s milk. At that night’s performance of Orpheus and Eurydice by Gluck, they are enthralled in particular by a long and rippling white gown that is worn by Eurydice in Hell. It comes equipped with an enormous headpiece of white feathers and is ornamented at the bosom with a glowing red neon heart. The brother and the sister act on their obsession in differing yet strangely complementary ways. She starts a romance with Chris the designer (Derek de Lint) who just happens to be that handsome stranger she narrowly avoided running over. Her brother, on the other hand, wheedles the designer into letting him borrow the dress. Or rather, to bring it in person to his oh-so-very-secret hangout, a place of which his sister knows nothing. This is an underground S&M club with the suitably operatic name of Mister Butterfly. It is a place where drag queens in chain mail masks pass raw oysters from mouth to mouth, where a man performs fellatio on a glistening black leather crotch bursting with lurid red orchids.

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Technically speaking, the gown is not for him. It is a birthday gift for a beautiful androgynous showgirl named Pepper, who is played by the real-life Italian transsexual Eva Robins. (She had a similar role in 1982 in the Dario Argento film Tenebrae.) Pepper, as expected, wears the haunted gown as if she had been born to it and lip-synchs a scene from Orpheus and Eurydice to the delight of the assembled guests. But back in her dressing room after the show, she unwisely declares her love to Bert. She has slipped off the gown and stands behind him naked, with most of her lithe body plunged into shadow. Yet we see, as she moves slowly into the light, that she has both breasts and a penis. This moment of shock revelation was pillaged more or less wholesale by Neil Jordan in his absurdly overrated The Crying Game (1992). To watch it in both movies is to see it staged, first, by a director with an authentically erotic sensibility and, later, by a director who is largely without one. (Jordan’s one truly erotic film Interview with the Vampire (1994) involves copious and extended bouts of man-on-man action, a thing Conrad shows us only in brief but tantalising glimpses.) It is scarcely a surprise when Bert turns round and strangles Pepper. Sexual confusion has been known to exact a frightful toll.

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The rest of Mascara hinges on Bert’s nefarious scheme to pin the murder on his sister’s hapless lover. The fact he is the chief of the city’s police gives him distinct advantage here. But very wisely, Conrad avoids shifting his movie into full-on policier mode. This is first and foremost a mood piece, dedicated to the purveyance of rarefied if distinctly kinky aesthetic and erotic frissons. He leaves ample time for Rampling to stare at her own exquisite form in the mirror, or out her giant picture window at that vast and seemingly tideless sea. Her wardrobe by Claude Montana appears to be more sculpted than sewn. It is undeniably opulent, but confining and constricting at the same time. Glimpsed above the fireplace in her sitting room is a huge Symbolist canvas of a naked woman with her hands bound by chains. Dare we hope that Chris can set her free of her brother and his clinging, incestuous love? (Among the many novel ideas in Mascara is the one that a man who designs gowns for the opera can be solidly and unimpeachably heterosexual.) Or will those sleazy and sinister denizens of Mister Butterfly get the better of Bert and Chris and Gaby and – who knows – possibly the entire known world?

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There is only one way you will ever know the answer to these and a multitude of other questions. That is to track down and snap up any surviving VHS copy of Mascara you can lay your hands on. It takes only a handful of hardcore obsessives to make a cult. The cult for this movie is many years overdue.

David Melville

2 Responses to “Forbidden Divas: The Eyes Have It”

  1. ehrenstein47 Says:

    Charlotte Rampling is An Axiom of the Cinema. The notion of her being cast as a transgender male is delightful. Lord knows she’s run the psycho-sexual gauntlet in film as outstanding as Visconti’s “The Damned,” Chereau’s “Flesh of the Orchid” and Liliana Cavani’s “The Night Porter.” I had the enormous pleasure of meeting her when Andrew Haigh’s marvelous “45 Years” premiered a few years back. As for Neil Jordan he made up for the ham-fistedness of “The Crying Game” with “Breakfast on Pluto”

  2. David Wingrove Says:

    The one way I could think of to improve MASCARA (which is one one of my all-time favourite films) would be to actually turn Charlotte Rampling’s character into a transgender man. So much in the script and the mise-en-scene seems to point in that direction…but it’s the one thing that never does quite happen. I guess turning her into a man would raise lots of awkward questions about HOW she and her brother managed to produce a daughter?!

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